Evidence Darwin Had for Evolution

Charles Darwin was limited by technology for what evidence he had.
Getty/De Agostini / A. C. Cooper

Imagine being the first person to discover and put together the pieces of an idea so big that it would change the entire spectrum of science forever. In this day and age with all of the technology available and all kinds of information right at our fingertips, this may not seem to be such a daunting task. What would it have been like back in a time where this previous knowledge that we take for granted had not yet been discovered and the equipment that is now commonplace in labs had not yet been invented? Even if you are able to discover something new, how do you publish this new and "outlandish" idea and then get scientists all over the world to buy into the hypothesis and help strengthen it?

This is the world that Charles Darwin had to work in as he pieced together his Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. There are many ideas that now seem like common sense to scientists and students that were unknown during his time. Yet, he still managed to use what was available to him to come up with such a profound and fundamental concept. So what exactly did Darwin know when he was coming up with the Theory of Evolution?

1. Observational Data

Obviously, Charles Darwin's most influential piece of his Theory of Evolution puzzle is the strength of his own personal observational data. Most of this data came from his long voyage on the HMS Beagle to South America. Particularly, their stop at the Galapagos Islands proved to be a gold mine of information for Darwin in his collection of data on evolution. It was there that he studied the finches indigenous to the islands and how they differed from the South American mainland finches.

Through drawings, dissections, and preserving specimens from stops along his voyage, Darwin was able to support his ideas that he had been forming about natural selection and evolution. Charles Darwin published several about his voyage and the information he collected. These all became important as he further pieced together his Theory of Evolution.

2. Collaborators' Data

What's even better than having data to back up your hypothesis? Having someone else's data to back up your hypothesis. That was another thing that Darwin knew as he was creating the Theory of Evolution. Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the same ideas as Darwin as he traveled to Indonesia. They got in contact and collaborated on the project.

In fact, the first public declaration of the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection came as a joint presentation by Darwin and Wallace at the Linnaean Society of London's annual meeting. With double the data from different parts of the world, the hypothesis seemed even stronger and more believable. In fact, without Wallace's original data, Darwin may never have been able to write and publish his most famous book On the Origin of Species which outlined Darwin's Theory of Evolution and the idea of Natural Selection.

3. Previous Ideas

The idea that species change over a period of time was not a brand new idea that came from Charles Darwin's work. In fact, there were several scientists that came before Darwin that had hypothesized the exact same thing. However, none of them were taken as seriously because they did not have the data or know the mechanism for how species change over time. They only knew that it made sense from what they could observe and see in similar species.

One such early scientist was actually the one that influenced Darwin the most. It was his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin. A doctor by trade, Erasmus Darwin was fascinated by nature and the animal and plant worlds. He instilled a love of nature in his grandson Charles who later recalled his grandfather's insistence that species were not static and in fact did change as time passed.

4. Anatomical Evidence

Almost all of Charles Darwin's data was based on anatomical evidence of various species. For instance, with Darwin's finches, he noticed the beak size and shape was indicative of what kind of food the finches ate. Identical in every other way, the birds were clearly closely related but had the anatomical differences in their beaks that made them different species. These physical changes were necessary for the survival of the finches. Darwin noticed the birds that did not have the right adaptations often died before they were able to reproduce. This led him to the idea of natural selection.

Darwin also had access to the fossil record. While there were not as many fossils that had been discovered in that time as we have now, there was still plenty for Darwin to study and ponder over. The fossil record was able to clearly show how a species would change from an ancient form to a modern form through an accumulation of physical adaptations.

5. Artificial Selection

The one thing that escaped Charles Darwin was an explanation for how the adaptations happened. He knew that natural selection would decide if an adaptation was advantageous or not in the long run, but he was unsure of how those adaptations occurred in the first place. However, he did know that offspring inherited characteristics from their parents. He also knew that offspring were similar but still different than either parent.

To help explain adaptations, Darwin turned to artificial selection as a way to experiment with his ideas of heredity. After he returned from his voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin went to work breeding pigeons. Using artificial selection, he chose which traits he wanted the baby pigeons to express and bred the parents that showed those traits. He was able to show that artificially selected offspring showed desired traits more often than the general population. He used this information to explain how natural selection worked.

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Scoville, Heather. "Evidence Darwin Had for Evolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/evidence-darwin-had-for-evolution-4030723. Scoville, Heather. (2023, April 5). Evidence Darwin Had for Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/evidence-darwin-had-for-evolution-4030723 Scoville, Heather. "Evidence Darwin Had for Evolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/evidence-darwin-had-for-evolution-4030723 (accessed May 31, 2023).